3Leave no room for selfish ambition and vanity, but humbly reckon others better than yourselves. 4Look to each other’s interests and not merely to your own.
Philippians 2:3-4 – Revised English Bible
36Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people to whom it came?
1 Corinthians 14:36 – Revised English Bible
As many of you know, I spent most of my working career running organisations. I’ve therefore always been interested in analysing problems and trying to think things through strategically. With this in mind, and having listened to the Irreverend podcast on this subject recently, I’ve been reflecting on how the Church views its own future.
The suggestion from those that run the C of E seems to be that Covid has caused a huge collapse in church attendance (after all, they’ve twice voluntarily closed most of their buildings) and that maybe 20% of those who’ve abandoned routine attendance will never return.
But is this the only issue? I fear that it might be necessary to look back many more years, if we wish to see this challenge in some kind of perspective.
In 2019, the average weekly Church of England church attendance was 690,000. One hundred years earlier, the figure was over 3.5 million, at a time when our population was much smaller than it is now. The attendance number has actually halved, even since 1966. The number attending church weekly is still decreasing every year, and the worshipping population is getting much older.
The number of priests looking after this population has declined sharply, too. I’ve been unable to locate how many stipendiary priests there were one hundred years ago, but in 2012 there were 9,200; in 2018, that number had fallen to 7,700, and 2,200 of those were over 60 years of age; numbers of priests are also falling at a rate that’s accelerating even after allowing for increased numbers of so-called ‘Self-Supporting Ministers’ and the admission of women.
On the other side of the equation, when I retired as Director of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust in 2005, there were 10,200 church buildings in the Church of England alone, excluding other parts of the UK. That number has scarcely moved; it may now be 10,000. In 2005, about 4,000 church buildings had an average weekly attendance in single figures. This number is likely to have increased since then and, in many cases, rural church buildings now have services only once a month.
If I’d been presented with this data when I was in business, I’d have reached the conclusion that the threat was existential; the very existence of the organisation was under threat, even before the added challenges of Covid. In my experience, existential threats need to be dealt with by rapid and radical solutions; changing small things slowly is never going to be enough and can easily make things worse.
So how has the Church reacted to this existential threat?
One response over the years has been to make priests responsible for an ever-increasing number of church buildings and congregations; Indeed, an estimated 40% of all stipendiary priests are now responsible for 5 or more church buildings. In 2005, I had heard of one incumbent in Norwich Diocese who had responsibility for 13 church buildings; I’ve since heard of an incumbent in Gloucester Diocese who has 19. The result of making incumbents responsible for ever-larger parishes has been, in many cases, to expose management weaknesses. The response to this, in turn, has been to look out for more ‘managerial’ types amongst the ordained, (or those who wish to be ordained) to manage the larger parishes, with talk of ‘Minster churches’ looking after ever-larger groups of churches, under some kind of ordained ‘Chief Executive Officer’.
There are now 44 Dioceses; 20 of these were created after 1850 and 12 after 1900. There has been only one Diocesan reorganisation (that I’m aware of) since 1900, when Wakefield, Ripon and Leeds Dioceses combined, just a few years ago. In each Diocese, there are now a large number of ‘managers’ who are having to deal with an increasingly wide range of issues: ‘safeguarding’ posts are the norm; ‘diversity’ posts are growing, as are such areas as PR, digital communications, admin, modern slavery, healthcare, pensions, church buildings, human resources – the list is almost endless. Only last week, the Church announced it was looking for a new national ‘Digital Supremo’, for rural parishes. Whilst the ‘real’ church in parish worshipping communities has in most areas been shrinking and struggling for many years if not decades, the upper layers of management of the Church mostly continue to grow, as does the wealth of the Church Commissioners, whose net assets have grown from £5.5 billion in 2012 to £7.9 billion in 2019.
This is not a simple matter and it’s true that the decline has been going on for many years; the report that led to the establishment of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust in 1953 predicted the demise of the national Church, unless action was taken. We seem to be in the same situation almost 70 years later.
But can the Church of England shrug off Covid as yet another challenge, or is it now genuinely in an existential struggle that requires new thinking? That will be the subject of my next blog, and I’m also intending in the next few weeks to cover the issue of church buildings, which are hugely misunderstood, most particularly and sadly at senior levels within the Church itself.
Grant us grace, Lord, to challenge ourselves and others to seek your will for the future of your Church. Amen